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Restoring Racing History – One Shell at at Time

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

Steve Chapin in the single, Larry Dewey, Roger McPherson, Ted Shoulberg and Jim Buckley in the Hoh. Photo by Dan Depew.

Before there were 80 channels of sports, rowing was a major event in Washington State. When the Huskies beat Cal, 2nd Avenue erupted with paper confetti in full Superbowl fashion.  And when the UW crew wrested the Olympic gold medal from Hitler’s iron fist, Seattle was hoisted atop the shoulders of the entire free world.

Once TV changed the landscape, the sepia photos of rowing crews – along with their dusty cedar shells – became memorabilia adorning the walls and ceilings of sports bars. Soon “Rowing” became SEO-speak for “Erging” – an indoor exercise that trumps a cold, wet predawn practice any day.

Still, there’s something about wading into Port Townsend Bay mid-October, climbing into a 62-foot stiletto and yoking yourself to eight people with an unhealthy desire for perfection. Call it torture, call it OCD – but if you’ve ever watched a racing shell knife through the water, blades in perfect symmetry, it triggers something in you.

That something is the endless chase of the perfect stroke, a feat that – when done on an erg – won’t get you across the gymnasium floor any faster – let alone give you the Frankensteinian thrill of breathing life into an inanimate object, just by adding water and a little voltage.

For over a century, that object was a wafer-thin wooden racing shell…. And the Stradivarius of them all was Seattle’s George Yeoman Pocock – another person with an unhealthy desire for perfection.

In the 1970s,  Western red cedar gave way to fiberglass, carbon fiber, and now Hypercarbon™. The high-maintenance “woodies” were shuffled to the back of the boathouse, and out the door in search of a good home.

For many of them, that home is Port Townsend’s Rat Island Rowing and Sculling Club, where championship wooden shells are lovingly restored and actively raced by rowers from 18 to 80.

We’re located at the corner of Point Hudson and Water Street in the new Northwest Maritime Center, home of Port Townsend’s Wooden Boat Festival Sept 5-7. On Saturday September 6th, the boys (and girls) in the boat will be in a regatta doing what they do best – breathing new life into old classics – just by adding water and a little voltage.

Come cheer us on, and meet Daniel James Brown, who will be signing copies of NY Times bestseller The Boys in the Boat. And while you’re here on our website, a small donation to our restoration efforts trumps a ticker tape parade any day!

 2004 Olympic Gold medal winners, seated in the 1960 Olympic Gold Medal-winning shell – the Hoh . Standing on the dock is Stan Pocock who built the shell with his legendary father George. Stan was also the coach of the Hoh’s 1960 Olympic Gold crew. The boat was so impeccably restored by the “Rats”, Stan asked for – and got – his boat back! (Photo courtesy Dianne Roberts)


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